House of Lords Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:32 pm on 9th January 2002.

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Photo of Lord Northbrook Lord Northbrook Conservative 9:32 pm, 9th January 2002

My Lords, I was full of high hopes for the White Paper, The House of Lords: Completing the Reform. However, I had suspected that the document might be somewhat confused due to the range of views on the opposite Benches. On the one hand, the view of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor a few years ago, as expressed in Janet Jones' book Labour of Love, stated that he favoured a fully appointed House: while on the other hand we have the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, when serving as Lord Privy Seal as expressed in Michael Cockerell's television documentary in February 2000 "Blair's 1,000 Days: The Lady and the Lords" in which she asked:

"How is it possible to justify any House of Parliament which is not at least mainly democratically elected?"

The document is a dog's breakfast. It was rushed out in great haste and there is a major misprint on page 22 where a whole line has been omitted. Moreover, a very short time has been allowed for consultation—only until 31st January. In addition, I have worries about the composition of a new House in certain areas of detail. First, how are the ranks of the bishops to be cut from 26 to 16? There seems to be no detail on that point. Secondly, how will the number of Law Lords be reduced from 28 to 12? Even that total does not seem to have been finally fixed. Thirdly, there is the question of how, in practice, the initial political balancing of the appointed political Peers will take place.

I am also confused by the meaning of certain sentences in the White Paper. On page 25, we are told:

"In particular, the Appointments Commission will ensure that at least 30 per cent of new appointees are women and 30 per cent are men".

What about the remaining 40 per cent?

I shall move on to more detailed criticism. Along with many other speakers, I should like to focus on the role of the appointments commission in relation to political Peers. As has already been said many times, this Royal Commission proposal has been watered down. No wonder my noble friend Lord Wakeham is concerned about parts of paragraphs 65 to 68. The role of the commission has been emasculated; it will not be allowed to choose political appointees, and therefore their quality will be less good due to lack of independent scrutiny. It should not be left to the political parties to select their own people.

My next area of criticism concerns whether the new proposed structure will be any better than the existing House or whether it will be worse than the former House. The present House does a good job of revising legislation. As has been stated, 4,761 amendments to Bills were passed in 2000. Adding a number of elected Members may have a symbolic resonance, but would it necessarily produce a more effective second Chamber? Would it make up for the skills lost through the exclusion of the hereditary Peers?

Furthermore, I believe that instability will be introduced by creating a two-tier membership of the House. Overall, it will not add value. It will make the House more complicated and it is unclear whether their numbers will be taken into account when determining the political balance of the House.

My next criticism concerns the problem of bringing the numbers down to 600 within 10 years. Initially the number of Peers must rise. An extra 24 Labour Peers will be needed to rebalance the size of the House, thus pushing the overall size to 727. Then, as stated in paragraph 95, will come,

"a real challenge . . . to work towards a reduction in numbers".

It is stated in the document that provision will be made for Members formally to retire, but would that apply to elected Members?

Continuing on the theme of the size of the House, if one expects some new appointments over the coming two years before a Bill is passed by the House, then the size of the membership will increase to 750, as stated in paragraph 91. However, the size of the House is to be capped at 600 in 10 years' time. How will that work in practice? The problems governing the mechanics are difficult. As independent life Peers die, will they be replaced automatically, or only when the House is reduced to 600 in size? The same problem of the mechanics will arise with regard to the appointed life Peers. What is to happen if not enough Peers volunteer to retire?

My next concern is the task of the appointments commission of balancing the House according to the political vote at the most recent general election. Paragraph 66 states categorically that the appointments commission cannot enforce resignations, a point which has been referred to by other speakers. However, the problems will become apparent if there is a big change in the party vote or if general elections are called one after the other, as happened in 1974.

My next criticism concerns the form of the Bill that is to come before the House. The complexity of the arrangements could lead to hybridity in the legislation. Some 92 Peers, who in effect are now life Peers, are to be treated differently from the rest of the House. A separate class of elected Peers will be created by the Bill. Some Members will be Peers and some will not. We seem to have a situation where, as per Erskine May, specific private or local interests will be affected in a manner different from the private or other local interests of other persons or bodies in the same category. All those matters will require many hours of debate.

In conclusion, the White Paper fails to offer a solution to the composition of the second Chamber and instead creates a complicated and highly unsatisfactory structure for the House.